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The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 18.2 (2004) 93-98

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Identity and Ethnicity

Vanderbilt University

What role should the category of ethnicity play in the study of identity and in identity politics? What are the tasks and challenges for the philosophy of ethnicity in the twenty-first century? And what is the place that ethnicity occupies outside the academy, in artistic and political practices and in everyday life? What is the role that it should play in our cultural and political future? This special issue of JSP is an interdisciplinary conversation that will address these questions from a variety of perspectives and disciplines (African American Studies, English, Ethnic Studies, Philosophy, Performance Studies, Sociology, and Women's Studies). Not only are there many disciplines and perspectives represented in this volume, but each of the participants in this dialogue on identity and ethnicity is multidisciplinary in her or his own work. The multifaceted discussion that the contributors to this volume have produced addresses the following central themes: what ethnicity is and how it intersects with other identity categories such as race and gender; how ethnic identities are produced and maintained, as well as disrupted and transformed, through ideological, sociological, and performative mechanisms; and how the politics of identity should be conceptualized and carried out in the light of today's problems with and challenges to ethnicity. In what follows I will present some of the central challenges that have emerged from the recent literature, which this volume addresses as well. I will then briefly introduce the individual contributions to the volume, highlighting what is distinctive about each as well as identifying some points of convergence and divergence between them.

Are our identities becoming postethnic? Are we on the verge of a postethnic future? In the recent literature on ethnicity and identity many have questioned whether the concept of ethnicity is an intellectually sound and politically legitimate category. For example, in Postethnic America (New York: Basic Books, 2000), David Hollinger warns us about the many cultural and political dangers in ethnic claims and ethnic movements; and he raises suspicions about the category of ethnicity itself as it has been used so far. Hollinger argues that claiming [End Page 93] cultural products and resources as one's ethnic heritage is exclusionary because it denies access to these products and resources to those who don't belong to the ethnic group, or at least legitimates differential access based on group affiliations. On Hollinger's view, ethnic movements and their exclusionary claims should be transcended and superseded by a cosmopolitan, postethnic perspective. According to Hollinger's postethnic perspective, cultural objects, ideals, and institutions belong to mankind and not to any group in particular:

At issue is how much of our appreciation for a doctrine or a work of art or an institution should be based on its perceived ethno-racial ancestry. From a postethnic perspective, the answer is, not much.
Egypt, surely, belongs to us all, and so, too, does democracy.

But do Egypt and democracy really belong to all of us, to all of us equally, to all of us in the same sense? Can we guarantee just and equal access to cultural products and resources without taking into account the specificity of their origins and history? Is their availability outside their originating contexts really incompatible with an appreciation for their ethnic ancestry? And are the full enjoyment and the responsible use of these products and resources really possible without such an appreciation? Can we develop an appreciation for ethnic ancestry without exclusionary implications? Can we make nonexclusionary ethnic claims concerning the cultural capital or heritage of a people? Whatever the answer to these questions happens to be, the criticisms, suspicions, and warnings of Hollinger and other critics of ethnic movements should, at the very least, make us self-critical about ethnic claims and their place in politics, education, and everyday practices.

The notion of ethnicity has also been problematized from within ethnic movements and identity politics. One of the ways in which this notion has been critically questioned is through a problem that affects...


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